We all have memories from our youth; most are good, and a few are bad, but all are etched and linger there for us to recall. As we age, these early memories become more vivid, prominent, and influential because they form the foundation for who we are today. These recollections form a tableau of “things” I experienced and want to pass on to our children and grandchildren. My early memories are from an era they cannot share. They are writing a book filled with the sum of their experiences, and I hope their memories are rich and interesting.
“The dead sit at our tables long after they have gone.” – Mitch Albom
My mother’s family was from South Georgia, and in the 1950s, traveling there by car from North Georgia was quite a chore. Georgia is a much bigger state than many understand. A long trip from North Georgia on two-lane roads in the backseat of a car with no air conditioning was almost unbearable. The only relief from the heat was rolling down your window and allowing hot air to pass over you at sixty miles an hour. It seemed like a relief, but looking back today, it was like having a hair dryer blow across you and calling it refreshing.
Our route was straight down U.S. 441 for about five or six hours to the little town of Adel. In those days, most of the streets were not paved, and during summer visits, shoes were left on the back porch for my entire stay. But this was a more somber visit, and shoes were a must.
I learned on the way down that my mother had a great uncle who had passed away and that we were headed down to his funeral. Her family was filled with Methodist preachers, and this was one of those essential men within the family. I had heard his name mentioned before but did not know him. I thought this was nothing more than accompanying my mother back home for a visit.
My grandfather and his brother were World War I veterans and lived a challenging but fulfilling life in the construction business. My uncle suffered from what we now call PTSD, but in those days, it did not have a name. After the war, he lived with my grandparents and took care of everyday chores. It was what it was, and they never considered a different arrangement. Families cared for each other through thick and thin during and after the Great Depression.
My grandparents’ house was a small white frame house built by my grandfather and his brother. It was functional, and like many others who survived the Great Depression, they saw little need for more. My grandmother regularly fed my grandfather’s whole construction crew in the dining room. The kitchen was also sparse, but the one luxury was a Regulator clock that hung over the refrigerator. Every morning, my grandfather got the key and wound the clock before going to work; it was as much of a family tradition as any other.
We rolled into Adel late in the day and went to see my grandparents. Both were devout Methodists, and the local church was within walking distance of their house. They immediately decided to go over to visit the family of the deceased, which I took to be something normal.
My great-great-uncle also lived in Adel, so the trip to their house took only minutes. When we arrived, their home was a nondescript white clapboard house like many others of the era. All I remember of the exterior are large trees, sandy soil, and three or four stairs leading to their front door. Cars and trucks were parked haphazardly in the yard. With dirt streets and little money, most houses had no grassed front yards. Like others, we pulled off the road and into the yard. With unpaved streets and no curb cuts, access to the property was informal and practical.
Entering the house was like any other visitation with a family who had lost a loved one. There were hugs, greetings, some light conversation, condolences to the widow, and somewhere, there had to be food. Families filled with ministers, farm hands, and blue-collar workers always had food at funerals, and there was an abundant display in the kitchen and dining room.
A First for Me
Eventually, my mother and I wandered into the front parlor, and to my surprise, dining room chairs supported a casket at the end of the room. At about ten, I had only been to one or two funerals with my parents, but these were always formal church affairs. I understood very little about other customs and how a funeral might be anything other than a church service. Indeed, I had never been this close to a casket or a deceased person.
But here in the parlor was my great-great-uncle laid out in his casket with family members standing around paying respects as if he were standing there with us. Since I did not know my great-great-uncle, I could not contribute to any conversation. I can only remember moving to the far side of the room and standing quietly. Little did I know that my new experiences were just beginning. The rest of the day was filled with food and conversation as if it were a reunion, including the living and the dead.
Sitting Up with the Dead
Small towns have cultural differences, and I was about to learn one. Southern families had traditions and methods of dealing with death that may have been unique to the region. It is possible that in the late 1950s, there was no funeral home in town, or it could have just been one of those family traditions, but the men in the family sat up with the deceased through the night so he would not be alone.
My mother was a progressive woman who believed her children needed exposure to many things to broaden their knowledge of the world. She, of course, told her father that it was important that all the men in the family honor the deceased, and I, being ten years old, would be joining them in the vigil. I am sure I was dumbstruck at that age and probably in shock. But as the evening wore on, it was apparent that “the men” would progress to the ritual of “sitting up with the dead.”
The mourners thinned, and I was left alone with the men. Like so many men of the day, they all smoked, and the house began filling with familiar aromas accompanying my summer visits. My grandfather smoked unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes or rolled his cigarettes from Prince Albert pipe tobacco. My uncle always smoked a pipe and had a tin of Prince Albert in his overalls whenever I saw him. I was probably the only non-smoker of the six or eight men who stayed for the vigil.
I remember the conversation starting with good memories of the deceased and then progressing to humorous stories about his life. Memories fade, but I am sure after hours, the conversation probably drifted off into the day’s events. I only remember being awakened by my grandfather the next morning after drifting off during the night. During the day, we went to the Methodist Church for a memorial service and then to the graveyard for the burial. My great-great-uncle was never left alone.
A Time-Honored Tradition
I have read that the tradition of “Sitting Up with the Dead” is primarily an Appalachian custom, but it seems broader in practice. It could be one of comfort or tradition, as in this case, but in earlier times, it could also be an assurance that the deceased was dead.
Today, we sanitize death so that children have few memories of relatives and their passing. People gather for more formal funerals, but the dead are left to themselves in funeral homes, awaiting a burial service. Some of this disassociation comes from health concerns, the mobility of our population, some from a move toward secularism, and some from broken families.
Whatever the cause, when we stopped “sitting up with the dead,” we broke a little link in the family chain. Connections are essential while we are on this earth and vital as we leave. You do not need to be religious to understand the importance of association and accompaniment during difficult times. This is a memory that is indelibly etched in my mind. My parents, grandparents, and granduncle had a deep connection from memories like this. It is just a brief chapter in a book of memories of the intersection of all our lives and one the children of today are missing.